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Russia’s Bow to France on Alcohol Names Irks Industry

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Russian government gesture to visiting French President Jacques Chirac--a promise not to use the hallowed French names “champagne” and “cognac” to label drinks exported from Russia--has caused howls of dismay in the Russian alcohol-producing industry.

Shampanskoye and konyak, Russians’ two favorite kinds of tipple at the annual high feast of New Year’s and on other special occasions, will now disappear as export brand names, to be replaced by the less glamorous “sparkling wine” and “brandy.”

Alexei Korolev, legal advisor to the Experimental Factory of Champagne Wines, on Friday counted the cost in new labels, lost sales and hurt national pride, declaring: “The damage is so immense that we may not even survive.”

At the rival Champagne Wines Factory in Ochakovo, outside Moscow, Grigory Labzhanidze, the general director’s secretary, was in equally bad humor.

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“The director has gone home early to get away from the phone ringing off the hook. People have been calling all day. But we have not received any official announcement yet,” he said, adding hopefully: “It is quite possible that these are all just rumors and we will continue to produce Sovetskoye shampanskoye just as we always did.”

It could have been worse. Russian experts who emerged from a Thursday night meeting between French Agriculture Minister Louis Le Pensec and Russian Deputy Prime Minister Viktor N. Khlystun originally reported that Khlystun had agreed to rename even Russian wines destined for the domestic market.

Officials of the Agriculture and Food Ministry hastily explained that this, at least, was not true.

Igor Kotlyarov, chief of the ministry’s wine department, made clear that only shampanskoye and konyak headed for export--mainly to Eastern Europe--will be renamed.

At home, he added, both much-loved drinks will keep the names familiar to all Russians.

“We must and will continue to produce Sovetskoye shampanskoye for the domestic department,” Kotlyarov said.

Russia is a big producer of both fizzy and distilled alcohol. Last year, 30 shampanskoye factories produced 200 million pints of the effervescent wine, mostly the sweet, sticky variety favored for parties. Russian factories also turned out 15 million pints of konyak.

Changing the names of these drinks inside Russia would mean incurring huge losses, Kotlyarov said. No one would rush to buy a bottle with the lackluster name “sparkling wine” or, worse, “brendi,” until now used in Russia as a name for cheap firewater made by mixing spirits and grape skins.

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“Every civilized person knows the difference between ‘champagne’ and ‘sparkling,’ ” Kotlyarov said sternly. "[Nor can we] use the word brendi for our superb liqueur from Dagestan, as everyone in Russia knows that brendi is a far cry from konyak.”

However, Russian officials stressed that they were being perfectly fair in their dealings with France’s Chirac, whose three-day trip to Russia ends today.

“The French are worried about the possibility of someone exporting even a small number of bottles of Russian shampanskoye or konyak sporting inscriptions in English or French,” said Alexander Bondarenko, the Agriculture and Food Ministry’s deputy head of food and processing. “This . . . shows that we operate in keeping with internationally accepted norms.”


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